War is not funny, but our war-making rulers are sometimes highly diverting when they try to square their practise with their precepts. The first world war provided us with the spectacle of Christian Cabinet Ministers, Judges and Police using Defence Regulations to prevent Christian Pacifists circulating leaflets containing biblical injunctions against killing and in favour of loving your enemies— on the ground that they were calculated to hinder recruitment.
The present era of cold war and crime waves has led to a Gilbertian situation concerning cosh-boys in khaki. The Prevention of Crimes Act, passed earlier this year, makes it an offence to be in possession of an offensive weapon, without lawful reason, in a public place. The Police soon found occasion to bring suspected lawbreakers into court under the new Act and one of the earliest cases was that of a painter charged at Clerkenwell that “without lawful authority or reasonable excuse” he had with him in a public place an offensive weapon—a pocket knife. (Evening Standard 3 July, 1953.) It appeared that he had had a dispute about the change given to him at a mobile canteen but he denied having threatened anyone with the knife (kept by him to clean his paint brushes) and pleaded not guilty to that charge. For damaging a show case he was sent to prison for two months. He was, apparently, allowed to keep his pocket knife but some soldiers at the Central Ammunition Depot near Oswestry were not so lucky, they were ordered to hand in their offensive weapons.
Following stern criticism by Mr. Justice Finnemore at Stafford Assizes on 2nd July, when he sentenced a National Serviceman from the camp for wounding a man with a knuckle-duster, the Police raided the camp.
“Floorboards were torn up in a search for coshes, sharpened bicycle chains and knuckle-dusters at Nesscliffe Army Camp, Oswestry, Shropshire, yesterday.
“Four hundred men of the Pioneer Corps, were given till noon yesterday to hand in any illegal weapons, or else— By that time one rusty, blunted piece of bicycle chain was handed in.” (Daily Herald, 4/7/53.)
In the House of Commons on 7th July Mr. Antony Head
, Secretary for War, stated that:
“No offensive weapons had been found in the camp. Apart from the two weapons used in the case referred to . . . two coshes had been found on waste land near the camp in November, but their ownership was unknown.” (Manchester Guardian, 8/7/53.)
Now we need hardly labour the point that surely Mr. Head was telling a downright lie when he said that “no offensive weapons had been found at the camp.” If he has been carrying out his job properly, and spending the fabulous sums voted by Parliament for producing offensive weapons in great number, that camp, like all the other camps, should and must be bristling with offensive weapons of horrific destructive power. But the Police, duly instructed on the terms of the Act, were gifted with selective gullets that enable them to strain at a cosh and swallow a tank. Unlike the people in the story who could look at their naked King and believe that he was fully dressed, the Police could look at an arsenal and report it clean, swept and purified of all offensive weapons.
The Daily Mail (8/7/53) took the matter up in an editorial, voicing the anxiety of parents of “decent lads from law-abiding homes,” at the thought that in the National Service camps the latter might have to mix with men with “criminal habits” armed with knuckledusters and the like.
The Mail comes down on the side of the law-abiding man and claims for him “a fair chance to go soldiering in clean company.”
It possibly does not occur to the Mail that the men themselves, if offered the choice, might greatly prefer fighting cosh boys with knuckledusters, to fighting with “legal” weapons against “decent lads” from other countries in the wars engendered by the capitalism that the Mail supports.